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Who can we vote for to avoid the worst-case scenario?

by Michael Hoffman

“Japan’s Worst-Case Scenarios” — that’s the title of the lead feature in the July issue of the monthly Takarajima. No one writing on such a theme need fear a shortage of material. The magazine easily fills 40 pages analyzing catastrophes and catastrophes-in-waiting: Tokyo leveled by a magnitude 9 quake; volcanic Mount Fuji erupting; 2 million Japanese dead in an influenza pandemic; an earthquake occurring immediately beneath a nuclear power plant unleashing horrors scarcely imaginable; Japan targeted by North Korean missiles; economic collapse; political paralysis; creeping radioactivity… Is that all? No. The list is long but space is short.

You can be an optimist and say none of this will actually happen, except what already has, but optimism is a discipline more easily acquired in some environments than in others. Even an optimist would have to concede that Japan today confronts problems that will not solve themselves. Who’s to lead in solving them? The government, naturally, but in Japan’s case it seems fair to ask, What government?

One thinks of the Cheshire cat in “Alice in Wonderland,” fading until nothing is left of it but its grin. When political veteran Ichiro Ozawa bolted the Democratic Party of Japan in disgust earlier this month over a pending consumption tax increase in clear violation of the party’s election platform, he took 48 loyalists with him. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, left now with a precarious majority in the House of Representatives, has made much of his determination to “stake his political life” on the increase, but it’s the party’s life that now seems to hang in the balance. An election is almost certain to be held this year. The opposition, scenting blood, is pressing for one, and 58.3 percent of voters want one, according to a survey conducted by the Jiji news agency two weeks ago.

An election is fine, but who is a disgruntled voter to vote for?

The opposition-leading Liberal Democratic Party? It’s hard now to recall the hope that surged in 2009 when the DPJ trounced the LDP after a half century of almost unbroken one-party rule. Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ prime minister, delivered an inspiring maiden speech to the Diet in October that year. He said, “There is no end to the number of people who take their own lives because they cannot find in society even a humble place to which they belong, and yet politics and government are thoroughly insensitive to this fact. My primary mission is to rectify this aberrant situation.”

Hatoyama lasted nine months. Noda took office in September 2011 with a support rate of 62.8 percent. It’s now 25 percent, which at least is better than that of his immediate predecessor Naoto Kan, who left office with 16 percent.

Who supports the limping DPJ now? A mere 7 percent of the electorate, according to an Asahi Shimbun poll published July 9. The LDP, the bums to be thrown out three short years ago are now poised for the current bums to be thrown out but inspire little enthusiasm — 17 percent. Who to turn to when disgust with the established parties reaches this pitch? The unestablished parties? There’s no lack of them, as has-been and also-ran politicians busy themselves founding them and devising sexy names for them. Ozawa’s new entity is called the People’s Life First Party. It joins a Sunrise Party of Japan, a Your Party, a New Renaissance Party and a Kizuna Party — the word kizuna (human ties) having acquired cachet as a symbol of the social cohesiveness so impressively displayed by victims and volunteers during the worst of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown crisis last year.

If a democracy’s health is measured by the number of parties it throws up, Japan’s is thriving indeed, but few take these infant parties, little more than clubs, very seriously. They make headlines when they form, a few more when they are named, and then are soon forgotten. Now the media spotlight is on Ozawa, but if he’s reading the copy he’s generating he’s probably not amused. The general reader probably is — the weekly Shukan Bunshun, for example, shows him wooing with comic desperation Nuclear Disaster Minister Goshi Hosono — young, handsome and popular with female voters. “Join forces with me and you’ll be party leader,” he reportedly pleaded. So far Hosono remains noncommittal.

“Who,” asks Fukuyama University professor Shusei Tanaka, writing in Shukan Gendai, “is ‘Mister X’” — the savior waiting in the wings? Ozawa, 70-year-old veteran of six political parties in a career spanning 43 years, is too shopworn an item to aspire to the role. One who may is Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto. “This is Japan’s last chance,” Hashimoto is fond of saying. What he means is, “I am Japan’s last chance,” and many believe him to be just that. In any election held now he would win hands down, Shukan Gendai says. Of course he would. He and he alone on the current scene radiates youth, strength and unwavering determination — good qualities when allied with wisdom, which not everyone sees in him. His lack of experience, writes commentator Hirotada Asakawa in Takarajima, would make him “worse than the DPJ” — whose fumbling performance in power has contrasted so pathetically with its bold pre-election agenda.

Hashimoto, in any case, is in national terms a future prospect, not a present one. Meanwhile tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have been massing in front of the Prime Minister’s residence every Friday night since March, protesting primarily the steamrollered restart of two nuclear reactors in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, in defiance of huge swaths of public opinion, but also, presumably, venting a more general sense of frustration and exclusion. “The people are furious at being ignored,” writes Tanaka.

Who will those hundreds of thousands vote for come the next election? And if, as seems more than likely, they and millions more feel nobody deserves their vote? What then? Democracies have failed to survive similar challenges.